I watched a woman come through the North Gate of the Hamid Karzai International Airport holding a limp baby. It was tiny, pale, and naked against the hot, dry noon sun. I couldn’t tell for certain if it was alive or dead at that arms-length distance, but whether or not I would like to admit it, I think I know the truth. I know nothing about her, or her family; where they came from, where they ended up, or the fate of the child in her arms, but as I think back on my long two weeks in Kabul I think that vision is emblematic of the situation that was bared to the world in August.
In some ways, she was exceedingly lucky; she and her family had gotten documentation from someone allowing them to escape a hostile Afghanistan and seek refuge and a new life in the United States. She and her family had made the journey from wherever they were, it could have been a mile or it could have been hundreds of kilometers, and had waded through the desperate mass of humanity outside the gates to “safety” inside the walls of HKIA. Yet they were faced with the inescapable reality of loss and tragedy and horror, both in the long train of events leading up to that moment and in the loss of their child.
American soldiers and Marines were presented with an extraordinary situation in HKIA, an entirely unprecedented situation in my untrained historical opinion, of being essentially captives at the mercy of our captors. The speed and the totality of the Taliban’s victorious campaign to retake Afghanistan caught the world completely off-guard, and I would hazard to guess they surprised even themselves.
Pundits the world over acknowledged the inherent weakness of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, and there was a great deal of high-quality journalism detailing the corruption and the impotence of the Afghan armed forces. Just how much of a paper tiger it was was made abundantly clear as the Taliban effortlessly de-fanged and de-clawed them in province after province that the U.S. had withdrawn from, until only Kabul itself remained.
Even this final hoped-for redoubt quickly collapsed as the Taliban drove straight into the city and the armed forces melted like a sandcastle in the tide, and the U.S. was placed in the precarious situation of being caught in the middle of our withdrawal completely unprepared and completely vulnerable. Where could we go by land? Kabul was isolated and surrounded by tens of thousands of fighters. Afghanistan is land-locked, so no navy or fleet of fishermen were going to rescue us like the British at Dunkirk. And we soon learned that America’s vaunted air power, the font of American imperial might, is a tenuous thread upon which to grasp when defeated and surrounded by enemies, and especially friends. Wild plans circulated through the Army as the emergency mounted: Should we retake Bagram? Should we reinvade from the north, south, or east? Should we reinforce HKIA? Eventually the latter was chosen, or perhaps chosen for us, as videos of human beings plummeting back to earth after desperately clinging onto the landing gear of our C-17s turned an inconvenient political situation into a full-fledged national embarrassment.
As it happened, the Taliban were in a win-win scenario where they were happy to facilitate us extricating ourselves and evacuating tens of thousands of their enemies at the same time; ultimately we flew out an entire army’s worth of men, perhaps two generations worth. Always, though, we were faced with a looming threat, the worst possible scenario: What would happen if the Taliban didn’t keep their word and laid siege to the airport?
As we took off in one of those planes, my knees and nose pressed against an armored truck inside the tightly packed cargo area, we had no idea what we were flying into. The entire 18 hour trip was essentially one long dramatic cutscene in a movie, building tension and fear and excitement until the ramp finally dropped. Would we have to fight our way off the plane? Would the refugees, desperate to escape, break through their queues and rush the ramp and crush us? Would we feel a bump bump bump bump as we landed and those not fast enough or not paying attention were plowed under? The ramp opened, slowly, I held my breath and set my jaw, and the runway was completely empty, which was simultaneously a relief and anticlimactic; this would become a familiar feeling for me over the next few weeks.
I think the best single word to describe my experience is “surreal.” It was absolute chaos, otherworldly chaos so extreme that we started to refer to ourselves as being in a “zombie apocalypse.” There were people everywhere, civilians, foreign soldiers, special forces and intelligence, everything, walking around on their ever-so-important errands. Because we didn’t bring many vehicles on our aircraft, we commandeered civilian vehicles left on the airport, which we euphemistically referred to as “Non-tactical vehicles,” for everything we needed. Soldiers were breaking into and hotwiring Toyota Hiluxes, armored SUVs, passenger buses, and small utility vehicles. I even saw several soldiers crammed into the cab of a big farm tractor that they had acquired from somewhere. To them, it must have been funnier than it was inconvenient. Some enterprising Marines even stole the baggage conveyor from the airport and were driving it around, conveying a squad at a time back and forth. Things and vehicles would occasionally break, and they would just be left where they were, and would frequently have to be moved to prevent blocking of streets.
The “Zombie Apocalypse” analogy seemed appropriate to for a few reasons. First, we were stealing everything we could get our hands on to try and survive. There were no rules and no authorities beyond the military chain of command. Soldiers quickly broke into the supply areas and began looting the equipment that was left behind by the various American and Afghan agencies; helmets, body armor, bags, gear, and there were even containers full of weapons. The weapons were quickly “DE-MIL”ed, meaning certain components were removed and destroyed, but there were still the gripping images of entire containers spilling onto the ground full of rifles and machine guns. Literally millions of rounds of ammunition, anti-tank rockets, grenades, and many other munitions were found in closets, containers, and offices all over the installation. These were later collected and destroyed or buried.
Second, the many thousands of refugees outside the gates were likened to the zombie horde, whose primary threat is overrunning you and tearing you limb from limb. I think this was in some ways a dehumanizing tool for the soldiers, because if you look at the refugees as people fleeing their homes and looking to you for safety and aid then it creates an extraordinary moral conundrum in the event that they breached the walls a second time and we were forced to do something about it. It was never quite clear, to me anyway, what the plan was in the event that another breach occurred. It seemed to be simply understood that another breach would not occur, likely due to the confidence, now vindicated, that the Taliban would control everything outside of the walls of the Airport. I am sure there was a plan in place, but it stands that the great irony of the whole situation was that our biggest threat on HKIA was not our enemy, it was our friends.
Since leaving Afghanistan, everyone who was on the gates has their own stories about the horrors they saw. American soldiers and Marines were placed under very strict orders not to interfere with anything that happened outside of the gates. Every inch of the city, right up to the walls, was controlled by the Taliban. The Taliban set up checkpoints on the roads leading to the airport, tightly controlling the movement of people and vehicles to and from the vicinity.
We heard reports of all sorts of atrocities committed by the Taliban. I listened to reports about sniper teams observing the Taliban dragging people out of their homes and cars and beating or executing them in the street. A friend of mine relayed a story where the Taliban apprehended about two dozen people attempting to scale the walls around the airport and then executed every one of them right there in the street, and the soldiers and Marines were forced to watch all of this happen and not intervene in this obvious war crime, lest we upset our intemperate guardians and risk them turning on us. Another soldier recounted how they watched members of the Taliban beat the belly of a pregnant woman who had slighted them somehow. The brutality extended beyond just the Taliban, though.
Working in the operations center, I was able to watch the security camera feeds that watched over the gates, and especially the North gate. The locals called this gate the Butcher House Gate, because there historically was a major butcher house located there. Learning this sent chills up and down my spine. For many days, as far as the eye could see there were people pressed together trying to get through the gate. At its height, it was estimated that 50,000 people were crowded outside of just that gate, one of five onto HKIA. I watched as the Marines and commandos for the former Afghan government attempted to maintain control of the crowds, often with sheer brutality.
Inside the walls was American ground, but outside the gate was controlled by the Afghans. On the south side of the road to the gate was a shallow canal. The Afghans kept the crowds out of the canal by sporadically firing their AKs into the banks of the canal to keep the crowds back. The gunfire was nearly constant for about five days. They would also fire in the air in an attempt to control the crowds, with the bullets falling everywhere to where you could occasionally hear one hit the roof of a nearby car, or find them on the pavement, partially flattened by their impacts on the pavement. The Marines didn’t fire their rifles, though they did don riot gear and occasionally push the crowds back with sticks and shields with the Afghans. They also occasionally deployed tear gas grenades and threw flashbangs over the heads of the crowds when they got too rowdy. The Afghan police were brutal. I watched on multiple occasions them beating the hell out of the crowd. They would force the people to sit down, and if someone didn’t sit down fast enough, they would beat them with enormous five foot long sticks.
The chaos was the worst when the gate would open and people would try to press in. One day I saw Marines evacuating several people who were shot one day during a riot at the gate in the back of a small utility vehicle, ripped clothes soaked in blood, a few of them died. I went to visit the gates a few times to check on equipment located there I was responsible for, and the smell was absolutely incredible; there was a miasma, and the air was thick with the putrid stench of piss and shit and sweat and anger and fear. The weather was in the mid 90s during the day and for the most part cloudless; Afghanistan was in the midst of a drought, so every time a vehicle drove by or the crowd moved huge, choking dust clouds would rise up and clog your nose and make you feel filthy after even a brief exposure. The tension in the air was incredible, and the Marines had an incredibly difficult job and I respect them tremendously for what they had to endure, let alone for the loss they incurred later on.
The worst case scenario at any point would be the Taliban laying seige to the airport, though that seemed increasingly unlikely as the days went by. All of this was to prevent the second to worst and far more likely scenario: another breach of the base walls by the mob of refugees. It also was crucial to maintaining the momentum of the airlift, which was the primary mission of the American forces there. Without that violence and brutality, we would never have been able to rescue as many people as we did. As a gardener rips weeds from his garden bed, the extreme violence perpetrated outside the gates facilitated the good that occurred inside the gates, and taking it away or doing something to end it would have had enormous moral implications for the untold thousands who would not have been able to make it out of the country.
What does an American soldier do when faced with this horrifying moral dilemma? In the military, we are told that we are defenders of freedom, that we fight for justice and that we should sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, especially the weak and powerless. How do you square in your mind the bitter contradiction of allowing evil to occur before your eyes in order to preserve a greater good? While I would argue that it is better to stand by and watch evil occur than have to do evil yourself, simply understanding that something good is happening out of sight is small consolation he whom evil is staring in the face and clogging his nostrils with its rank odor.
Whenever I heard my soldiers complaining or struggling with our mission there, I tried to be the good leader and would point to a C-17 taking off and remind them that every one of the planes taking off held 500 human beings just like them on their way to freedom and a better life. All of us were doing our best to facilitate that despite the horrors we witnessed. Walls and guards could only keep out the worst though, and like waves breaking over a levy during a storm, evil rolled in in small measures, accumulating and resisting the small pockets of goodness on this island.
In my opinion, the conditions on the base were far worse than the news reported. There were times where there was no food and little water for the more than 10,000 refugees on the base waiting to get on planes. This was not the “fault” of the military necessarily, but rather the consequence of the logistical difficulties of moving huge amounts of supplies into and massive numbers of people out of the airport in such a short amount of time. There was also intermittent sewage and trash collection, so there accumulated enormous piles of human excrement and trash, and because there was no running water, hygiene became difficult. Bulldozers were used to literally scoop up huge piles of trash to carry to a dumping point somewhere on base.
Once, the Air Force had to stop flying planes because there was so much trash accumulating on the edges of the aprons and taxiways that they were concerned a piece of trash would get sucked into an engine of a plane and destroy it. At some areas where the refugees moved, the trash, mostly water bottles and field ration trash but also clothes and discarded belongings, was one to two feet thick and sometimes more around the fences. In order to cope with the increasing crowds of people accumulating inside the walls, the Army set up what it called “Comfort Areas,” where they attempted to provide areas for the refugees to rest and have access to shade, food, and water. Despite the best efforts of the soldiers on the ground, these quickly turned into enormous human sties, and until the people started to thin out from the airlift there was a mounting risk they would riot from the inside as they became increasingly restive at the worsening conditions in the holding areas. There were shortages of food and water, and a particularly acute shortage of baby formula and diapers for the thousands of babies brought onto the base, making a bad situation even worse for the most vulnerable refugees.
Orphans began to accumulate as well. Children abandoned there were as young as a few days old. Later we learned of more horrors. On more than one occasion, families that did not have papers took their children to the walls and gates and intentionally broke their bones or burned them badly before literally throwing them over the walls in the hopes that we would be compelled to bring them inside to provide medical care for them. Once inside, the families fled the gates, abandoning them to their fates in the arms of the Americans. Over 800 orphans were evacuated from Afghanistan.
Yet again, moments of brightness shone through the misery and horror. In one particularly beautiful story, one of the soldiers had a baby a few months before we deployed and was breastfeeding. She continued pumping her breastmilk and occasionally went to the orphanage to feed the babies. She fed over a dozen children with her milk, including one baby who was severely malnourished and dehydrated from being in the crowds at the gate for so long with a mother who was also probably malnourished. After a few days of consuming the rich, healthy breastmilk the baby gained strength and began responding to the bottle and was able to take formula and will probably survive. No childrens’ services were established prior to the Army arriving, so the soldiers had to establish a makeshift orphanage inside of the hospital, and soldiers volunteered to take turns feeding, caring for, and playing with the dozens of children that occupied it at any one time.
The entire time I watched all of this occur, I waited with nearly bated breath for “the big one,” the attack that we knew was coming. ISIS-K was active, and we had considerable intelligence indicating that something was coming, and soon. No one expected it to be as bad as it was. The attack itself has been well-covered, but even then it doesn’t seem to me to be the whole story. A suicide bomber and some gunmen don’t kill 180 people and wound hundreds of others. That will have to be taken up by some other enterprising journalist to uncover the rest of the truth, but the results of the attack were devastating nonetheless. The medical facilities and staff were overwhelmed almost immediately with the sheer number and severity of casualties. Marines, soldiers, men, women and children were evacuated in short order from the site of the attack to the hospital adjacent to where I was working, and I assisted with the transportation of the casualties and the dead. I’ll never forget the smell. Myself and many of my fellow soldiers, especially the young ones who were largely unprepared for the carnage, will likely carry the psychological scars of that night for the rest of our lives. As horrible as it was, I am fiercely proud of my soldiers and what we were able to do that night with the little that we had. We were not set up to handle an event like that, and we were put in a terrible situation, but we found a way, as we always do.
Later in the night, there was a message to medical personnel that there would be a Chinook helicopter carrying 30 KIA that we would need to evacuate. That was terrifying, because it wasn’t clear initially that the 30 dead were civilians, so I sat there imagining another 30 dead Marines and soldiers. I knew my history, and knew that this was the deadliest day in Afghanistan in a decade from what I had seen already, but if there were over 40 KIA it would be the deadliest day for the United States since probably Vietnam. When we were told it was civilians, there was no relief, because in the civilian casualties would probably be many children. This was the most horrifying to me, and I started to visualize picking up dead children and putting their tiny broken bodies on stretchers to try and prepare myself for the task. We loaded up 30 stretchers into the backs of a few pickup trucks and waited. 30 stretchers seems like far more than it is when you are faced with moving that many dead human beings. Along the flight line where the helicopters landed were also hundreds of refugees, and I was concerned that they would become upset and try to rush us as we moved dozens of stretchers of their dead countrymen in front of them. I felt a tremendous sense of relief when we got word that the helicopter had gone to a local hospital instead of coming to us. It was a good thing too, because we soon learned that we would not have been able to support that many KIA. For the first part of the night medical personnel were unable to find enough of the proper bodybags for the dead, so they were placed into lightweight white bodybags, which were less robust and didn’t conceal the blood pooling in them or smeared on the inside.
I don’t remember how the night ended for me, but the next few days were a blur. The evacuation of civilians essentially ended after the attack, and the main focus was on the withdrawal of military forces. This was done in a carefully planned manner where certain key elements were left until the very end, in the event that the Taliban attempted to double-cross us or a sudden surge of civilians blocked the flight line. We were lucky that neither of those happened, because they certainly could have.
What would we have done? Would we have destroyed the city in an attempt to protect our final troops on the ground in Afghanistan? Would we have committed atrocities to prevent them from being stranded? America is far from a gentle giant, her wrath has killed hundreds of thousands of people since the start of the war in Afghanistan, but she doesn’t typically do her killing so openly or at such a scale, or all at once. Her crimes tend to be crimes of accumulation, a few atrocities here, a little collateral damage there, which taken as a whole far eclipse any of the individual events. In my mind, I told myself they would do all of that and more, which I feel guilty about in some ways. I would have killed to get home to my family, and I am reasonably confident the American military leadership would have killed to get me home. Fortunately for us and for Afghanistan, this will remain a hypothetical.
In one of the most famous stories from the Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are blown off course and land on the island of the Cyclops Polyphemus. In their greed and hubris, they attempt to steal from the wealth of Polyphemus, who traps them in his cave and eats several of Odysseus’ men. In a desperate bid to escape, Odysseus and his men blind Polyphemus with a spear and trick him into letting them escape. As Odysseus and his remaining crew are fleeing in his ship, he cannot help himself but to shout back at the forever maimed Polyphemus and taunt him for having tricked him. He not only gained nothing, he lost several of his crew to the monster’s depredations, and yet as he sailed away he ignored his culpability for all of these avoidable failures and instead boasted of his courage and his cleverness in the final moments of their encounter.
This American war in Afghanistan needed to end, and the multitudinous disasters that unfolded before the eyes of the world would likely have happened to one degree or another regardless of when it ended. It is disappointing to me that the nation seems to be contenting itself with the admittedly great success of the airlift while criticizing certain aspects of the final months of the withdrawal, with a few people extending their criticism back a few years for mostly partisan reasons and in doing so are missing the forest for the trees. I have my own opinions about that, but for now I think we need to first understand what actually happened at HKIA, and I hope that this soldier’s story can help fill in the human details that are so often missing from the conversation. For myself, I would be content for America to recognize that the adventure was a terrible mistake in the first place, resolve to never do it again, and be happy that we got out of the cave alive.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
John Vaughn is an active duty officer in the United States Army. He graduated from West Point in 2013 and commissioned as an Infantry officer before becoming an Information Technology Systems Engineer for the U.S. Army. He has served as a Platoon Leader at Fort Bliss, TX, as a Company Commander at Fort Benning, GA, and as an instructor at the Army’s Officer Candidate School. He has deployed to Kuwait and Afghanistan, and has been published in the Army’s Signal Magazine.